Portland Trail Blazers
2021-22 record: 27-55
Key additions: Jerami Grant (trade), Gary Payton II (free agency), Shaedon Sharpe (2022 draft)
Key subtractions: None
Last season: The inevitable franchise shakeup finally occurred and it was just short of seismic. The Blazers fired GM Neil Olshey and traded CJ McCollum, two important figures over the last several years on a team that failed to reach the NBA Finals in the Damian Lillard era. Speaking of Lillard, he had a subpar year (for him) caused partly by injury and was limited to 29 games before the Blazers shut him down. The roster turned over in 2021-22 as the Blazers pulled the plug on a disappointing season before the All-Star break and essentially held tryouts for 2022-23.
Summer summary: There are two ways to fix a team in danger of being mired in mediocrity: strip it down and start over or patch it up and hope for the best. The Blazers chose the latter mainly because the Blazers still believe Lillard is (a) worth building around despite being a smallish guard who mainly impacts games with his shooting, and (b) can still perform on an elite level for a handful more years.
It's time, Rip City⌚️
— NBA TV (@NBATV) September 16, 2022
Essentially, Portland is adamant that “Dame Time” won’t expire anytime soon. The Blazers are banking — almost literally — on Lillard being the centerpiece of a championship contender. Mind you, the Blazers only went as far as the Western Conference finals on Lillard’s watch (back in 2019). In that series, they lost to the Golden State Warriors — who were without Kevin Durant — and Lillard was outplayed by Stephen Curry (who three years later is coming off yet another title).
The Blazers extended Lillard’s contract by two years and a staggering $122 million this summer when there was no urgency to do so. Lillard, after all, wasn’t approaching free agency. With this extension, he’ll earn $63 million when he turns 36. First: Congrats to Lillard, a stand-up guy and ideal face for the franchise. Second: Portland either ignored all trade packages for Lillard — he surely would’ve fetched young players and first-round picks — or was too emotionally tied to him and didn’t seek any.
So the decision was made, then. Lillard stays and the Blazers try once more to surround him with the right pieces, this time under the direction of Joe Cronin, the new man in charge of personnel.
Cronin certainly isn’t bashful as he pulled the trigger on McCollum last spring and brought in Josh Hart, Larry Nance and Justise Winslow, three serviceable rotational players. This summer, he made two more decisions that seem worthy of applause: Signing Payton and acquiring Grant.
Grant’s skill-set fits today’s game — long and athletic with good defensive instincts and a fairly reliable 3-point shot. After serving as mostly an athletic wing and defensive stopper in his first five NBA seasons, he blossomed into a go-to scorer and more reliable 3-point shooter with the Detroit Pistons (20.9 ppg, 35.3% on 3-pointers in his last two seasons).
With the Pistons, he was capable of being a volume scorer and a primary option, and in that regard, the Blazers believe he’ll complement Lillard. The Blazers will also need to pay him as he’ll be an unrestricted free agent next summer.
That puts another financial decision on the franchise’s near future because — in addition to Lillard’s extension — Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic got extensions this summer, too, and Payton signed a reported three-year deal.
Payton is coming off a solid run as a defensive stopper/key reserve on the champion Warriors. Wonder where he learned how to play D? Anyway, this is a sort of homecoming for the former Oregon State star and he should command the minutes he earned with Golden State last season.
He’ll back up Simons, who flourished once Lillard was shut down last season. Simons on some nights was a take-charge player who looked comfortable in that role as the season progressed and his minutes increased (he averaged 23 points the last two months). That earned him a reported four-year, $100 million deal, rich for a player who, until Lillard was injured and McCollum got traded, was getting 22 minutes a night off the bench.
The other order of business was extending Nurkic another four years. He’s just 28 and, when healthy, he’s still a factor around the rim.
The Blazers were awarded a lottery pick for their 2021-22 misery and spent it on Shaedon Sharpe who, much like Simons, is a two-guard who didn’t play a minute of college basketball. He went to Kentucky but skipped the chance to suit up, declaring for the Draft instead. Essentially, his Draft status was largely due to his play in the Nike Youth League, a summer showcase for high school stars, in 2021.
One more interesting summer note: The estate of the late Paul Allen, run by his sister Jody, announced the team wasn’t for sale. Nike founder Phil Knight, a Portland native, had reportedly expressed interest. At some point, the Blazers will be sold, just not anytime in the near future, according to the estate.
Maybe by then, Lillard will be off the payroll and involved in a potential ownership bid.
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